Welcome Home HERA Mission XVII!

With the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) habitat, we
complete studies to prepare us for exploration to asteroids, Mars, and the Moon…
here on Earth! The studies are called analogs, and
they simulate space missions to study how different aspects of deep space
affect humans. During a HERA mission, the crew (i.e., the research participants)
live and work very much as astronauts do, with minimal contact with anyone
other than Mission Control for 45 days.

The most recent study, Mission XVII, just “returned
to Earth” on June 18
. (i.e., the participants egressed, or exited the
habitat at our Johnson Space Center in Houston after their 45-day study.) We
talked with the crew, Ellie, Will, Chi, and Michael, about the experience. Here
are some highlights!

Why did you decide to participate in
HERA Mission XVII?

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HERA
Mission VXII participants (from left to right) Ellie, Will, Chi, and Michael.

“My master’s is in human factors,” said Chi, who studies the
interaction between humans and other systems at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical
University. “I figured this would be a cool way to study the other side of the
table and actually participate in an analog.” For Michael, who holds a PhD in
aerospace engineering and researches immunology and radio biology, it was an
opportunity to experience life as an astronaut doing science in space. “I’ve
flown [experiments] on the space station and shuttle,” he said. “Now I wanted
to see the other side.” For Will, a geosciences PhD, it provided an opportunity
to contribute to space exploration and neuroscience, which he considers two of
the biggest fields with the most potential in science. “Here, we have this
project that is the perfect intersection of those two things,” he said. And
Ellie, a pilot in the Air Force, learned about HERA while working on her
master’s thesis on Earth and space analogs and how to improve them for deep-space
studies. “A lot of my interests are similar to Chi’s,” she said. “Human factors
and physiological aspects are things that I find very fascinating.”

NASA missions all have patches, and
HERA Mission XVII is no different. Did you get to design your patch?

HERA
Mission VXII patch, which reads “May the Force be with you” in Latin and features
Star Wars iconography. It’s a reference to the mission’s start date, May 4th
aka Star Wars Day!

“We did!” They said …with a little the help from Michael’s brother, who is a designer. He drew
several different designs based on the crew’s ideas. They picked one and worked
together on tweaks. “We knew we were going [inside the habitat] on May Fourth,”
Michael said. “We knew it would be Star Wars Day. So we did a Star Wars theme.”
The patch had to come together fairly quickly though, since a Star Wars Day “launch”
wasn’t the initial plan. “We were supposed to start two weeks earlier,” Ellie
said. “It just so happened the new start date was May the Fourth!” Along with
the Star Wars imagery, the patch includes a hurricane symbol, to pay tribute to
hurricane Harvey which caused a previous crew to end their mission early, and
an image of the HERA habitat. Will joked that designing the patch
was “our first team task.”

How much free time did you have and
what did you do with it?

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HERA
Mission XVII crew looking down the ladders inside the habitat.

“It was a decent amount,” Michael said. “I could have used
more on the harder days, but in a way it’s good we didn’t have more because
it’s harder to stay awake when you have nothing to do.” (The mission included a
sleep reduction study, which meant the crew only got five hours of sleep a
night five days a week.) “With the time I did have, I read a lot,” he said. He
also drew, kept a journal, and “wrote bad haikus.” Because of the sleep study, Ellie
didn’t read as much. “For me, had I tried to read or sit and do anything not
interactive, I would have fallen asleep,” she said.

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The
crew’s art gallery, where they hung drawing and haikus they wrote.

Journaling and drawing were popular ways to pass the time. “We
developed a crew art gallery on one of the walls,” Will said. They also played
board games—in particular a game where you score points by making words with
lettered tiles on a 15×15 grid. (Yes that
one!) “Playing [that game] with two scientists wasn’t always fun though,” Ellie
joked, referencing some of the more obscure vocabulary words Will and Michael
had at the ready. “I was like, ‘What does that word mean?’ ‘Well that word
means lava flow,” she said laughing.
(The rest of the crew assured us she fared just fine.)

Chi tried reading, but found it difficult due to the dimmed
lights that were part of an onboard light study. She took on a side project
instead: 1000 paper cranes. “There is a story in Japan—I’m half Japanese—that
if you make a 1000 cranes, it’s supposed to grant you a wish,” she said. She
gave hers to her grandmother.

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The
whole crew having dinner together on “Sophisticated Saturdays!” From left to
right: Will, Ellie, Chi, and Michael. They’re wearing their Saturday best,
which includes the usual research equipment.

On weekends, the crew got eight hours of sleep, which they
celebrated with “Sophisticated Saturdays!” “Coming in, we all brought an outfit
that was a little fancy,” Ellie said. (Like a tie, a vest, an athletic
dress—that kind of thing.) “We would only put it on Saturday evenings, and we’d
have dinner on the first level at the one and only table we could all sit at
and face each other,” she said. “We would pretend it was a different fancy
restaurant every week.”

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The
table set for a “civilized” Saturday dinner. Once the crew’s hydroponics grew,
they were able to add some greenery to the table.

“It was a way to feel more civilized,” Will said, who then
offered another great use of their free time: establishing good habits. “I
would use the free time to journal, for example. I’d just keep it up every day.
That and stretching. Hydrating. Flossing.”

Like real astronauts, you were in
contact with Mission Control and further monitored by HERA personnel. Was it
weird being on camera all the time?

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HERA
personnel and the monitors they use for a typical HERA mission.

“I was always aware of it,” Michael said, “but I don’t think
it changed my behavior. It’s not like I forgot about it. It was always there. I
just wasn’t willing to live paranoid for 45 days.” Ellie agreed. “It was always
in the back of my mind,” she said, further adding that they wore microphones
and various other sensors. “We were wired all the time,” she said.

After the study, the crew met up with the people
facilitating the experiments, sometimes for the first time. “It was really fun
to meet Mission Control afterwards,” Will said. “They had just been this voice
coming from the little boxes. It was great getting to meet them and put faces
to the voices,” he said. “Of course, they knew us well. Very well.”

For more information on HERA, visit our analogs homepage.

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